In "Bethlehem," Israel's submission to the recent Academy Awards for the foreign language Oscar, first-time filmmaker Yuval Adler views entrenched political tensions through the template of a police procedural. Focusing on an Israeli intelligence agent and one of his Palestinian informants, the movie has the taut efficiency of a well-constructed crime thriller, while its real-world underpinnings play out with a less convincing sense of urgency.
Tsahi Halevy carries himself with a mournful, in-over-his-head demeanor as Razi, an officer in Israel's secret service who's trying to prevent an impending suicide bombing in Jerusalem. Teenage informant Sanfur (Shadi Mar'i) is a crucial resource; his older brother, who heads a militant faction, is a man the Israelis have been trying to lure out of hiding.
Complicating the cat-and-mouse maneuvers is Razi's connection to — or personal investment in — the boy. While his colleagues view Sanfur as an increasingly out-of-control "asset," Razi feels protective toward him. Sanfur, alternately grateful and resentful, is less easy to read. Whether informant or double agent, he's torn between loyalty and self-interest. On home turf, he's essentially a kid caught between gangs, whatever their ties to political movements.
Adler and co-screenwriter Ali Waked throw in references to Hamas, Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, and they create caricatured bad guys without illuminating the intricacies of the regional conflict. Their crime-saga setup pulses with danger in impressive and harrowing action set pieces. Any emotional impact, though, is limited to its final moments, and complexities get left in the desert dust.
"Bethlehem." No MPAA rating; in Hebrew and Arabic with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes. In limited release.